Kicking Arse and Taking Names

I’ve been thinking about urban fantasy and the kickass heroine lately, and chatting about her over at Marianne de Pierres’ Facebook page.

I first started turning this over in my mind when I read a piece on critiquing groups in one of the Wiscon Chronicles by a woman who struggled because her female characters, who acted logically within her own cultural context, were being criticised for not being more active, aggressive, “kickass”.

And I wondered if the kickass heroine had maybe become a millstone around our necks.

The kickass heroine has become a mainstay of SF films and gaming. She has led TV series such as Xena, Alias, Buffy. She is Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Lara Croft, some other characters played by Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsdale in Underworld…

She is tough, violent, uncompromising, ruthless, broken. You don’t mess with her.

There are many things to like about these women, particularly because they provide such a contrast to the kind of female roles that have generally been available in SF and fantasy. But it concerns me when these become the only kinds of women that there is room for in speculative fiction – particularly in SF films where Ms Kickass is the only female character, and her appeal seems to revolve around the fact that she acts like and is accepted by all the men, plus bonus boobs.

I talked about lone princesses here – I think the same can apply to Ms Kickass. Don’t get me wrong – if there’s only one woman on screen I’d rather she be kicking arse and taking names than throwing up, screaming and being rescued… but do they all have to be wearing leather trousers and tramp stamps?

There is a fine line between empowering, and objectifying. Sometimes the difference comes down to who is holding the camera, and who is sitting at the keyboard.

It’s worth noting that less than fifteen years ago, the idea of an action tv show with a female lead character was seriously revolutionary. But Xena worked, and Buffy worked… and part of the reason that they worked is because both lead characters were tough, powerful women. They were also complex, well developed characters – and they had relationships that made them feel like more than just action heroes with breasts. Characters like Gabrielle, Ephiny, Cyrene, Aphrodite, Eve, Willow, Joyce, Cordelia, Anya and Tara showed that there were many different kinds of female strength, which freed up the leads of both shows to be as tough and arse-kicking as was appropriate to the character. Both shows featured cheesecake shots and emphasised the hotness of the lead characters, though they did their best to portray this as just another weapon in their arsenal. (it’s interesting to note the contrast in Buffy’s character in images from the show vs. photoshoots and press releases)

Both TV shows carried out a constant dialogue about femininity. Both had some rocky, awkward moments, trying to shoehorn in reminders that hey, these kickass heroes are GIRLS, look, cheerleading uniform, look, flirting with a farmer! But ultimately both shows relaxed into their own skins. I still get a bit breathless watching season five, in which we see an armoured, heavily pregnant Xena still fighting her way through the world, because it doesn’t just stop. I still get resentful and angry that the show didn’t let her have more than a few episodes of being a warrior with a baby on her hip… there is a marvellous scene where a warrior sneaks up on her while she is breastfeeding in the forest… and you just know she’s not vulnerable.

But then, you know, both shows went away and we got Heroes where the women are either cheerleaders, hookers, evil matriarchs or doomed…

Ahem. I don’t want to lose the kickass heroine. But I do resist the idea that she is all that speculative fiction has to offer, and it annoys me when ‘kickass’ is used as an alternative to actual characterisation, or where it gives a writer an excuse to write her exactly as he would a man, as if that’s something cute or new or edgy to do.

I suspect that if readers do have ‘Ms Kickass Fatigue’ it’s more from a perception of the genre than from reading it – ie, those covers, with those leather trousers and those tattoos. Just like people think they know what every fat fantasy trilogy ever is like, because all the covers are similar.

What I love about the urban fantasy genre is that it tells the story from the POV of the kickass female protagonist, instead of presenting her as someone hot to look at who acts conveniently exactly like all the guys in the same story. Where she is at her most effective, Ms Kickass has a network of supporting characters who show her as a complex, three dimensional character, more than just a montage of karate chops, cleavage-in-vinyl and hair-not-tied-back-while-kicking-arse-omg. Sadly she is still, very often, the only strong woman in a man’s world. I love it when she isn’t.

There is also plenty of urban fantasy/paranormal romance that isn’t about those kinds of characters, and that’s okay too. I enjoy the fantasy chicklit that is the lighter side of these stories – Shanna Swendson, Mindy Klasky. These stories have come to the genre via romance rather than via horror/crime, which means that they haven’t had to push their way through narratives that default to a male protagonist, and don’t have to dodge tropes such as “lose your virginity and die” or “the bad girl is always brunette except when she’s blonde.” Though of course they do have to deal with “if he loves you it’s happy ever after” which is just as problematic in many ways.

The female protagonists in urban fantasy, as in modern crime fiction, have taken back the noir. I don’t want them to give it up. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want more. We can have it all, right?

6 replies on “Kicking Arse and Taking Names”

  1. Melander says:

    After watching that video clip I swear we have better cover art here than they do in North America…. I’ve thought this for years. In Japan the International bookshops I visited (some with bigger English sections than Fullers- Ellison Hawker-Angus and Robertson COMBINED) tended to offer both UK and US editions and the UK ones were always less scarred with marketing stuff and bar codes, nicer quality papers and much more appealing cover art.
    Hmmm either that or the book marketing people do know their stuff and know that US readers like their books like that…?

  2. tansyrr says:

    Well, worth noting that US paperbacks can cos half to a third what Australian ones do… it’s hardly surprising that they use cheaper paper!

    I generally prefer UK (or Aus) editions to US ones, but I always assumed it was a cultural thing, that I tended to prefer those covers. Also US books are more likely to have crazy tiny print.

  3. Kaia says:

    Yeah seriously. The tramp stamp? Has to go. Sadly I don’t think that it will, but I am so over the whole “oh let’s give the heroine a tattoo to show that she is kick arse”.

    Also, I agree with Melander, the US covers are sometimes really bad. I mean, I suppose they work in the context they’re being sold in, but they have people on the cover more often, which always screws with the picture I have in my head. Illustrations are much better, in my opinion, and also, are less likely to end up in shit storms!

    And, one more thing. The thing I hatehatehate the most is when the kickass heroines do stupid shit just to prove how STRONG and AWESOME they are. And then they have to be saved by somebody (in yucky cases a man, in kind of okay cases their smarter friends) just to in some screwed up way teach the reader that being an aggressive female is BAD FOR YOU.

    Mind you, I don’t particularly mind the kickass heroine if she’s also smart or has some other assetts (and I’m not talking about her boobs here, let’s make that clear). Because nothing is more painful than watch the supposedly strong main character fuck up AGAIN… You would think they would learn, with time, no?

  4. tansyrr says:

    Yes, when done badly, a female character threatening or doing violence randomly just looks stupid. (heh also stupid when a bloke does it but we’re used to that) It depends on the character, of course… But yeah I worry that ‘kickass’ is going to go the same way as ‘feisty’ where the little feminine girl acts tough just long enough to get into bad situations…

    As always it’s ‘this kind of character sucks… when written badly’

    Reading Siren Beat publicly this week I was wincing – Nancy threatens violence to Cadmus out loud or in her head at least two too many times. It’s overkill!

    I really think that cover art contributes to people’s opinions of whole subgenres – the tramp stamp cover worked to create a subgenre in reader’s minds, but what do people outside the genre think of it? (it really is just like spaceships and dragons…)

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